More House School has a rich and exciting history to its name, deeply embedded in its Roman Catholic roots. Founded in 1952 by a group of parents who were frustrated by the meagre options for Roman Catholic secondary school education in South West London, the teaching was led by the Canonesses of St Augustine.
Possibly the most exciting time in the school’s history came in 1971, when the school’s forced move to new premises threatened it with closure due to lack of funds. Bravely, the girls rallied together and, completely independent from the teachers and parents, organised a protest march to Archbishop’s House, where they met Cardinal Heenan, Archbishop of Westminster, entreating him to save the school. One banner read “What is teaching without God?”. Their prayers were eventually answered – Cardinal Heenan gave the Board of Governors a guarantee from the Church, which enabled them to purchase the lease of the school’s current premises in Pont Street.
Clarissa Lada-Grodzicki, mother of a More House girl and member of the Board of Governors between 1970-1095, kept meticulous records during this period. We can thank her for the numerous newspaper clippings and various reports about the history of the school, especially in 1970-1971 when its future hung in the balance.
History of the School by Pamela Coate
Below is the lengthiest, most detailed report on the history of the school, written by Pamela Coate, a long-time director at More House, and below are some of the newspaper clippings and reports from our archives.
“In 1952, a small group of parents were searching for Catholic day education at secondary level in central South West London for their daughters. They discovered that the choice was very restricted - the Sion Convent in Bayswater or the Sacred Heart School in Hammersmith - and both presented a rush-hour transport problem.
Shortly before that time, the Canonesses of St Augustine, well known for their schools at Westgate, St Leonards and Les Oiseaux in Paris, had bought the old Vandyke Hotel in Cromwell Road, South Kensington, and at the request of the Archbishop of Westminster, had transformed it into a hostel for Catholic students at London University. Mrs Arthur Pollen and Mrs Basil Grey approached Mother Veronica Balfour and suggested that she and her community of highly-qualified teachers might combine presiding over their hostel with running a girls’ day school during the hours of the students’ absence at their courses. It was obvious that this doubling of jobs and increased work-load could not be undertaken lightly, but Mother Veronica Balfour was sympathetic in principle and agreed to start an experimental class while a feasibility survey was in progress. So it was that in the Autumn of 1952, three twelve-year-old girls became the pupils of the nuns at More House, Cromwell Road. They were: Mary-Rose Pollen, Cecilia Gray, and Judith Pakenham. By the end of the first year, they were joined by three others: Jenny Hanbury-Tracy, Jennifer Heneage, and Philippa Crosthwaite Eyre.
By then it had become clear that a real demand for such a school existed and steps were taken towards its official establishment. The sanction of the Mother General of the Canonesses was sought by Mrs Pollen who put forward the parents’ point of view during a visitation the Mother General made to the English Province and, as a result of this meeting, her blessing was bestowed upon the project. Meanwhile, six mothers called on Cardinal Griffin to inform him of More House’s progress and to see his patronage and support. This was readily granted, plus a pat on the back for parental initiative.
Thus, in the Autumn of 1953, More House emerged from its embryonic stage in the shape of two forms. The initial group now became the Third Form and the new intake made up Form One. Form Two took shape a little later – several younger sisters of the pioneers swelled the ranks from below. The Canonesses took St Thomas More as Patron Saint of the school. His name embodied Faith and Education and he had been a great patron of the family erudition which the school should strive to emulate.
With the committed interest they had in founding the school, parents were glad to avail themselves of the opportunity offered by Parents’ Meetings to express their views on matters connected with the school. These meetings were often the scene of keen debate, but a warm open relationship was always maintained between parents and nuns.
Among those parents who took the greatest interest in the school and gave it most support, including advice on legal and financial matters as occasion arose were:
Dr and Mrs Auden
Mr Tom Byrne (Editor of The Tablet)
Mr and Mrs M Cooper
Mr and Mrs O Crosthwaite-Eyre
Lord and Lady Dormer
Mr Charles Forte
Mrs Basil Grey
Mr R Mathew
Marquis & Marquise de Miramon
Lord and Lady Pakenham
Mrs and Mrs G Parmiter
Mr and the Hon Mrs A Pollen
Mr and Mrs Robins
Mr and Mrs S Sheppard (Mother Balfour’s sister)
Mother Veronica Balfour, the founding Headmistress, was the first nun to gain a degree at Cambridge. There is no doubt that it was Mother Veronica’s warm and balance personality, her breadth of vision, her sense of humour, her infectious enthusiasm for all that was best in many fields, her great love of children and above all her deep spirituality which laid the School’s foundation and shaped its character in the happy atmosphere which still pervades it to the present day. She was ably supported by Mother Mary Peter, Mother St John, and Mother St Edward. Later on, the brilliant Mrs Pauline Sharpston joined the staff. She had gained a double First at Cambridge and was a Licenciee of the Sorbonne. There seemed to be no limit to her fields of interest which included literature, ballet, and drama, but her greatest talent lay in her ability to stimulate young minds and to foster and even enforce independent thinking on their part. Mary Rose Pollen, the first Head Girl of More House, later described her effect on the higher forms as ‘electrifying’. Pauline Sharpston was a convert to Catholicism and the very fact that anyone of such formidable intellect and such a wide range of knowledge should have become a Catholic, served as a strong support to the faith of her adolescent pupils who were facing the emergence of the materialistic fifties.
The School grew slowly from its first roots; at the end of two years it consisted of only twenty girls, but thereafter the expansion was more rapid and by the end of seven years, there were over ninety pupils. In due course, it was inspected by the Ministry of Education and officially recognised as an efficient Independent Secondary School. It should perhaps be noted that from its inception, there was no uniform at More House. Drama played an important part in the School and plays were well-produced: Comus with Anita Auden (niece of the poet, W. H. Auden) in the title role and the Greek play Alcestis were especially memorable productions as were the original and moving Nativity plays.
By the time the first batch of girls reached school-leaving age in 1960, Mother Veronica went out to Uganda where she took over a school for African girls, expanded it and raised it to university entry standard. As well as having such a conspicuous success of More House School and, while in no way neglecting the Students’ Hostel, Mother Veronica also established a much-appreciated Catholic Centre for conferences, retreats, lectures, and social gatherings. After Mother Veronica’s departure, Mother St Dominic (now Sister Geraldine) was appointed Headmistress in 1959.
More House continued to flourish with a complement of 110 girls, when in 1968, the Canonesses decided reluctantly that they must give up the school in order to concentrate on the university Chaplaincy, hostel, and Catholic centre. The current parents decided to try and save the school, the last Independent Secondary Catholic Day School for girls in Central London, and to maintain the high scholastic and moral standards achieved over the last fifteen years. To this end, they formed themselves into an Association to take over the school under lay management. In 1970, Cardinal Heenan gave the project his support and a guarantee from the Archdiocese of Westminster enabled the Governors of the More House Trust to acquire premises in Pont Street for the school to move in to in the summer term of 1971. For this, the Governors needed to raise £60,000. The guarantee from the Archdiocese was only for £37,500 for the purchase of the lease. The remaining £22,500 for conversion and refurbishment was being raised by loans from parents and friends – the Canonesses had donated all the school furniture and equipment from Cromwell Road.
In September, the Governors learned that the charitable trust concerned with the loan to buy the premises were withdrawing their guarantee on the grounds that no substantial contribution was being made by the laity and that the project did not appear to have the support of the Church. This was a time when the Church was supporting the transformation of Catholic Grammar School into Comprehensive Schools. The decision was surprising as it had been explained that the existing parents had already contributed by way of gift or guarantee enough to cover the estimated deficit for the two years in Cromwell Road and that the Governors were confident of being able to attract more substantial support from individuals once a surer future could be announced.
After lengthy discussions with the charitable trust and exploring other avenues with no further result, the Governors felt that they had exhausted every channel and that unless £37,500 could be raised within a month, the premises in Pont Street would be lost and the school would have to close at the end of the summer term 1971. This news distressed the parents, but it displeased the girls even more. Under the leadership of Mrs Hull’s two daughters – whose grandmother, Mrs Pollen, was one of the founders of the original More House – a protest march to hand a petition to Cardinal Heenan was organised. The girls master-minded it entirely on their own, with no help from parents or teachers. They telephoned Archbishop’s House from a call box outside the school and were given an appointment to present their petition on Saturday 11th October in the afternoon. They then telephoned the police to ask for an escort for their march and finally, all the girls signed the petition and made their banners carrying variations on the theme SAVE OUR SCHOOL. The march was made from Cromwell Road to Hyde Park Corner and thence to Victoria and Archbishop’s House near Westminster Cathedral. Parents were instructed to follow at a distance but they were close enough to hear the singing of ‘We Will Overcome’ and see the waving banners and the amusement of passers-by together with the two policemen delegated to look after the determined marchers.
The Press had been alerted to this school-girl demo and journalists and photographers were waiting at the Archbishop’s House and were admitted at the tail-end of the procession while parents stood anxiously outside. As they were going upstairs, the journalists heard the older girls say to the younger ones: ‘Don’t be put off by any soft soap. If the Cardinal offers us prayers, you have to say we want money so that the School can continue…’. The Cardinal did offer prayers but also praise and support for the school and its work. The Guardian and The Express had a large photograph of the Cardinal blessing the girls and also a third leader captioned ‘Fine Spirit in Girls’ School’ which is worth quoting: ‘Sixth London schoolgirls march in protest to Cardinal Heenan’s home to ask him to save their school – a Roman Catholic foundation – from closing. When pupils feel so strongly and express their loyalty so fervently, authority should react with understanding. The spirit of More House School provides a fine basis on which young lives may be built. This quality is more important than bricks and mortar. It should certainly be preserved’. With the Cardinal’s support and the helpful publicity from the press, the Governors went back to the charitable trust and received the loan which enable the school to buy 22-24 Pont Street.
The school moved into its new home at the beginning of the summer term 1971. The premises had housed a finishing school called “The Three Wise Monkeys”, known as “The Monkey Club”. This flourished between the two wars but closed after the retirement of its two Headmistresses.
The Monkey Club was residential, many rooms on the top two floors had been divided into bedrooms and had to be restored to classrooms and laboratories had to be fitting into the basement. A sympathetic architect worked with the School for fifteen years and provided the necessary facilities while keeping the impressive fin-de-siecle features intact. The Ballroom with its beautiful plaster-work ceiling became the assembly hall and dining room; incidentally, the imposing chandelier gracing it, bought as the school moved in when extra money was crucially short was deemed by the Governors to be a gracious but necessary symbol of the spirit of the new More House. The reception room adjoining it became the gym with surely the grandest ceiling to ever witness PE classes! The small library next to the dining room became the kitchen, again retaining a superb ceiling and stained glass windows. It has always been a fact that from the beginning, the school’s greatest problem has been space. Over the years, spaces have been changed and maximised to provide the room necessary for a full range of classrooms and activities necessary for academic excellence. It is true that the premises provide an invaluable experience, very useful in life, of making the best of circumstances that cannot be changed. Staff and girls have always risen to this challenge with commendable flexibility.
With the installation of More House in Pont Street, mention must be made of the strong tradition which continues unabated of parental commitment and involvement in the school. Thirty years ago, parents taking over the management of an independent school was not as common as it is now and one might say that More House was a pioneer of this trend. The year the school moved and for a few years subsequently until the loan was repaid, parents were called upon to help save money and raise money. Until a catering firm could be afforded, a rota of mothers prepared and served lunch sandwiches to begin with and then moving on to hot meals. Governors and parents volunteered for many different activities; one father built wooden lockers and bookshelves in the classrooms. The top floor still retained a few bed-sits which were taken over by a Governor who cleaned, managed, and let them out on a short-term basis to Armed Forces officers in London on service courses. Another Governor volunteered to rent out the dining room and gym for wedding receptions and parties – this involved laying and removing a stair-carpet from entrance hall to dining room, and climbing the parallel bards to hang red felt in camouflaging swags! The greatest single contribution to putting More House on a sound financial basis came from Mr Aldo Gazzi, a Governor with three daughters in the school. As Chairman of the Finance Committee, he masterminded the finances virtually on a daily basis and organised an impressive team of parents to assist him in the task of repaying the loan and initiating a Trust Fund to ensure the school’s financial future. More House consolidated the reputation of the caring, academic school it had always enjoyed.
One of its Headmistresses, Mrs Pauline Mathias, was elected President of the GSA (Girls’ School Association) – the first Catholic Headmistress to hold this office – and was Chairman of ISIS (Independent Schools Information Services). After leaving More House on retirement, Mrs Mathias was elected Chairman of GBGSA (Governing Body of Girls’ Schools Association).
More House has always benefitted from its central London location which enables it to take girls from a wide catchment area and to make full use of the capital’s many museums, theatres, concert halls, and various institutions.
This is the story of More House up to and after its move to Pont Street. Its history is a happy and successful one. Its future story lies, as always, with the enthusiastic partnership between girls, staff, and parents. Floreat More House!”